The vastness of space has the potential to lull users into a false and dangerous sense of complacency.
Once this blissful ignorance is penetrated, the impulse is often to immediately draft and promulgate regulations to set order in place. Add to this the international nature of space exploration and use, and the appetite of many regulatory theorists for immediate, top-down, global solutions is whetted.
Improving orbital safety is serious. Quality of life on Earth relies on applications and services provided by satellite operations. However, the baseline assumptions upon which governance choices rely are undergoing rapid and intrinsic change. Technology advances have increased the number of satellites, particularly in low Earth orbit.Two examples are miniaturization and multiple deployments from a single launch. The increase in the number of active satellites adds to the danger represented by an enormous amount of debris, the largest percentage of which is lethal non-trackable debris. Now, add to the mix the reality that these smaller satellites sharing the orbital environment with all of this debris are now moving around and, in one business model, moving around autonomously driven by algorithms that are not shared with all other operators. The rules that currently govern are primarily focused on mitigation of the creation of more debris. While mitigation once relied upon design and end of life requirements, the conversation about space safety is now beginning to include protocols for improved situational awareness data and noticing and collision avoidance capabilities. While it is clear that more standards, requirements, and, ultimately, regulations are needed, there are a number of approaches to the development of effective rules that are well-rationalized, enforceable, or of such obvious benefit to all that they are followed voluntarily. Not all rules are created equally. Only some will actually improve the safety of the space operations environment. Effective norms and rules in this inherently international situation will also rely heavily upon agreement and alignment among regulators of multiple jurisdictions. Strict national rules governing a satellite operator in an orbital location near a satellite from a more lenient jurisdiction will not achieve the desired outcome. Planning, coordination, and transparent cooperation will. There is a need for diverse discussion among the many involved stakeholders and disciplines, utilizing diplomacy and building capacity where needed, to collaborate internationally to make space safer. This is the foundational legacy of international cooperation upon which our legal framework is built.